I really thought this pandemic would be over by now. No, not Covid-19 — Imposter Syndrome. Sure, Imposter Syndrome took a while to gain acclaim after its injection into the world in 1978 by Clinicians Pauline Chance and Suzanne Imes. It takes time to convince people that the very human and normal way their brains are functioning is in fact not normal at all and they are broken — sick with a SYNDROME, even. The number of pearls that have been clutched in the name of Imposter Syndrome could accessorize all queens of history with strands to spare.
Not to make light of how Imposter Syndrome (from this point forward referred to as Impo-19) feels. All of us know the sting and queasiness of feeling less than, unprepared, or even undeserving. I still feel that way when I drive and I’m accident free since ’93, and that one wasn’t even my fault.
Brains are funny. We develop parts over time whose job is to protect us from danger and pain but do so in the most diabolical of ways. They tell us we’re not good enough, smart enough, good looking enough etc. to pursue something or someone so that we don’t get hurt. Great intentions, lousy execution.
Impo-19 is one of those voices. It’s high on power, heady with many years of wins of keeping you out of trouble by talking you out of doing scary things. It’s very good at its job. It could certainly get a promotion if it didn’t feel so much like a, well, you know.
The funny thing about Impo-19 is when you corner people about having it, they don’t like it.
“So, an imposter is a fraud, right?”
“So, you are a fraud, then?”
Confusing. So, are you an imposter, or not? It gets easier to understand when we realize the answer is yes to both questions. There is a part of us that feels like an imposter, and also a part of us that knows that’s not true. Impo-19 is the part that feels like a fraud. The part that is fearful of making mistakes, getting scolded, or feeling shame and embarrassment. Impo-19 (who also has passports under the names ‘Inner Critic’ and ‘Inner Judge’) was likely created by your mind when you were little, in response to a time in your young life you were called dumb or made to feel less than in some way. Our brains create protectors like Impo-19 to keep us from ever feeling that pain again. Those protectors don’t age and stay with us stubbornly, long after their use has grown thin. Impo-19 is likely a toddler. It’s probably wearing a pull-up and clutching a blankie.
Developing these protective parts is normal and the behavior of a healthy brain operating as intended in service of its primary mission: survival. These parts will do whatever is necessary to keep us alive and out of trouble. The sticky part is that our brain hardware is still mightily similar to how it was 20,000 years ago, when survival looked more like not getting yoinked by a sabertooth tiger and less like giving a speech on budgets in front of the executive leadership team.
Having a voice in our heads that tells us to not take risks because we aren’t good enough isn’t a sickness — it’s an overly enthusiastic survival mechanism that could really use some personal time off.
Often folks feel like an imposter when applying for a new job. Who am I to think I can do this new job? What if I fool everyone into thinking I can do it but I really can’t? What if I get unmasked and then booed in the town square like in The Princess Bride?
At this point in the conversation, I’ll ask folks what they wish would happen, and most often the response is this: I just wish I had more confidence.
Confidence. A wolf word in sheep’s clothing second only in nefariousness to empathy, but that’s for another article.
Confidence on its own is all fine and good. It’s a great thing to feel! The problem is when people try to summon confidence to feel ready to do hard things, when confidence is a result of experience, not the prerequisite for it.
How can someone have confidence in doing something they don’t know how to do? By definition, that’s wildly impractical, not to mention a tad arrogant. We can certainly have confidence in things we know how to do, and optimism about things we don’t but are about to try. Have confidence in your processes — your skills and how you show up to things — but confidence based on outcomes that include things beyond our control just sets our confidence up to be fragile and unreliable. Waiting around for confidence to show up for things we don’t know how to do or can’t control is like waiting for Putin to cash in his rubles. It’s just taking too long and we can’t just keep sitting around in the meanwhile.
So once it’s understood that we need to do things anyway, even if confidence isn’t in the picture yet, the inevitable and egregious ‘Fake it until you make it!’ bumper sticker elbows its way into the room.
Here’s why it sucks: the very first word of this devilish advice is ‘Fake’. Midnight Express right back to fraud land, and we worked pretty hard to get out of there.
When we are learning new things, we are not faking it. We are, at the risk of sounding repetitive, learning. We are not being fraudulent. Sure, we can put our best foot forward and act more confident than we feel, and here’s the rub — that’s not faking it; it’s learning with optimism instead of with pessimism. It’s sending the Impo-19 voice a strong message that says, “Yeah, this is new, and the future is unclear, but I’m doing this anyway. Thanks for your concern, but I’ll handle this.”
Impo-19 won’t go down without a fight and will undoubtedly assault you with a litany of resolve-shaking accusations about your deepest insecurities and fears, and no one knows those better. It will be tempting to heed its warnings and not do the scary new thing, but let me ask you this:
Are you going to let a toddler in a pull-up tell you what to do?
Instead of ‘Fake it until you make it’, Make it until you make it. Do the things until you know how to do the things. You are not an imposter — you are a student. Allow yourself to learn things without making yourself feel bad for not already knowing them. Put the toddler down for a nap and let them know they are safe. It may work out and it may not, but you are willing to take the risk.
The world can have one less syndrome. I’m pretty confident about that.